5-generation family celebrates birth, longevity, values

Wally Rothschild experienced a rare joy last month — the birth of her first great-great-grandchild.

"He looked like a doll," she said about young Adam Melamed. "He was a big boy, rosy cheeks and I was very proud."

On a morning, the 97-year-old San Franciscan got to kvell some more when five generations of her family gathered in her Sunset District home, including Adam, whose cheeks are still rosy.

Adam's mother, Victoria Isaak Melamed, his great-aunt Ellen Isaak and his grandfather Jerry Isaak, were also there. After breakfast at Rothschild's large dining-room table, they congregated in her living room.

That this multigenerational group could assemble for a family get-together was more than just a triumph of genetics. It was also a testament to a family's survival.

The family left Germany for the United States on Oct. 30, 1938. Ten days later, Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass that preceded the Shoah.

Rothschild's daughter Ellen Isaak, 15 when they left Germany, remembers the atmosphere well.

"I couldn't go to school," said Isaak, now 75 and living in San Francisco. "I couldn't go out in the evening. I had a curfew. A lot of people were already arrested."

Because of Germany's increasingly anti-Semitic laws, Isaak had to switch from a public to a Jewish school in 1936. A year later, the Jewish school was closed.

With the help of an uncle already in Chicago, Rothschild moved her family there. The German government didn't allow them to take their money with them, only furniture.

The first few years in America were tough, she recalled.

"In Germany we had many friends. We traveled a lot. Here, we had to pinch pennies."

Once they arrived in Chicago, Rothschild, who had never worked, began laboring in an undergarment factory.

"It was terrible," she said. "I didn't even know the name of the electronic machine."

Her husband, who had been a sales manager for a large company in Germany, got a job as a stock boy for an American lampshade factory.

Isaak, a retired department store worker, remembers traveling blocks from their house just to get day-old bread.

Looking back on the experience, she admires her mother's courage in starting a completely different life.

"It was her greatest wish to be a citizen," Isaak said. "At the time we were enemy aliens. We didn't want to speak German."

Her mother added: "During the day I worked very hard and then in the evening I went to school. It was tough, but I made it."

Isaak was the first in the family to move to the Bay Area when her husband, an army chef, was stationed here in the mid-40s. After the birth of her first child, Jerry, she asked her mother to come out West.

Now in the Bay Area, the entire family lives within 30 minutes of each other. Isaak's daughter, Peggy Isaak Gluck, lives in Foster City with her husband and three children. They gather for Jewish holidays, birthdays or just to get together.

Asked to cite morsels of wisdom that Rothschild has passed on to them, her relatives mentioned three primary lessons: the importance of Judaism, family and tzedakah, righteous giving.

"I am a proud Jew," said Rothschild, who has been a member of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco for over 40 years. "I go every Saturday morning to synagogue."

Isaak said her mother has passed on this pride to her children.

"In Germany, I didn't go to school. I couldn't go anywhere. Friends that were not Jewish weren't allowed to talk to me anymore. Even then, my mom said, 'Never deny that you're Jewish.' Even when we had no money, we celebrated the holidays," she said.

"Wally always tells us she goes to temple on Saturday morning to pray for her family," said Isaak Melamed, 26. A Redwood City resident, she is a member of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

Family members say Rothschild is equally generous in the larger community. After her husband died of heart problems in 1966, she volunteered at Mount Zion Hospital, where he was treated. Last year, she was honored for more than three decades of support for Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem. She's also a long-standing member of the Ner Tamid Sisterhood.

"Her positive outlook on life, I think, is inspiring to the whole family," said Isaak Melamed, choking back emotion. "She's always taught us to be a part of the family. We're basically raised to feel that we're not just individuals. We're a part of a whole, part of a group. I think it's that knowledge that makes us close."

Her father, Jerry Isaak, 51, agreed. The San Mateo businessman's voice also choked up when he talked about his grandmother.

"Her encouragement, love of family, is very strong."

Rothschild said simply, "If everybody is happy, I'm happy, too."